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Though the story has several attributions, many claim it's what Anton Chekhov told actress Olga Knipper when they first met.

"Can you make me an artist?" she asked the great Russian writer.

"Yes," he replied, "but to do it I must break your heart."

Guillermo Calderon's Neva takes place January 9, 1905, six months after Chekhov died. Knipper, now doubly famous as an actor and as Chekhov's widow, comes to St. Petersburg to perform The Cherry Orchard. But she's blocked. She hasn't felt anything since Anton Pavlovich died.

Illumined by a single footlight, she rehearses with two other actors, Aleko and Masha. They improvise scenes and speculate about the value of - and even the need for - art.

The latter happens because outside the theater, it's "Bloody Sunday." In 40-below weather, 200,000 unarmed workers are marching on the Czar's Winter Palace (where someone ordered the Imperial Guard to fire on the procession. The official estimate said 130 people died; the unofficial, up to 4000).

V.I. Lenin said Bloody Sunday was the "Great Dress Rehearsal" for the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Inside that historical backdrop, Calderon (who also directed) foregrounds the trio of actors in one of the most minimalist - and precarious - mountings in recent memory.

The actors perform mostly in the dark on a platform maybe what? - ten-feet-by-ten-feet? The footlight shapes scenes and casts giant shadows on the walls. Actors move, contort, and combine in fascinating stage pictures reminiscent of Federico Garcia Lorca's highly experimental works.

And much of what they say/do is "Chekhovian."

Chekhov - a personal favorite of mine - never preaches or judges. With profoundly precise artistry he appears to let his characters go free (or as free as their natures and inhibitions will allow). They configure and reconfigure into intricate tapestries of life in all its colors - at once.

They say when he died - well, one account claims - Chekhov said "Ich sterbe ("I'm dying," in German) and just as he did, a champagne cork popped. The death of a genius and a symbol of celebration in the same instant. That's "Chekhovian."

So is Olga's inability to remember how her husband died, even though she was in the room. Did he drink the champagne? When she put an ice bag on his chest, did he say "Don't put ice on an empty heart" - or "on an empty stomach"?

For theater junkies, Calderon adds another rinse. The three actors are probably students of Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre's "method acting." To generate believable emotions, they often recall details from a similar situation they've experienced - "sense memory" or "affective memory."

Olga should be the last person on earth to need internal, emotional aid for the death scene. But she does. And that's Chekhovian too.

Calderon also alludes to the absent father in Three Sisters. The man may have been many things, but he gave the family order. After his death, strings untie. In Neva - the title comes from the river at St. Petersburgh - the absent Chekhov has a similar, de-centering effect on the story.

The piece runs around 80 minutes. It has lapses - scenes fire, then must re-load - but for the most part it explores deep emotions with kinetic grace.

Sue Cremin makes Olga vain, funny, histrionic, and even capable of arresting stillness. And she gnashes lines that, though they'd make most directors cringe, define Olga's outsized character sharply.

Ramon de Ocampo (Aleko) and Ruth Livier (Masha) perform with remarkable verbal and physical dexterity as well.

The trio, it turns out, is also a cross-section of attitudes about art and ideology. Olga, who rarely sees beyond her narcissism, favors the status quo. Aleko, who comes from money but plays poor people convincingly, wants a return to Leo Tolstoy's agrarian ideal: abandon all cities and till the soil.

Until the end, Masha has been the piece's third fiddle. Then she gives a long, hair-raising tirade - in a mechanical voice - about the self-absorbed uselessness of bourgeois art. The workers are finally taking action, she shouts like a biblical prophet, so cares about acting?


La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, playing through June 30. (858) 550-1010.

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